The Origins Of Nintendo Treehouse

By Robert Ward . July 18, 2014 . 5:30pm

Just over three million people tuned in this year to watch the livestream of the Nintendo Treehouse Live event at E3. Viewers were treated to friendly smack talk between Morgan Ritchie and Eric Smith as they played devious custom-built levels in Mario Maker, a deeper look at Xenoblade Chronicles X with Rich Amtower, Ethan Stockton, and Ed Murray, and some delightful demonstrations of Toad’s Treasure Tracker and Fantasy Life with Audrey Drake and Alison Rapp.


Even the most diehard Nintendo fans might not recognize those names—despite likely having played several of the titles they’ve helped shepherd into America—but they’re still more recognizable now than they were sixteen years ago. Back then, the face of the Treehouse was completely different. Hell, it barely had a face.


I caught up with Bill Trinen, the Director of Product Marketing at Nintendo of America, about how things have changed since then.


“The thing about Treehouse is that it’s actually a huge team [now]. When I joined Nintendo back in ’98, there were two of us,” Trinen shared with me. “We localized games, captured all the screenshots for promotional materials, wrote all of the manuals, captured all of the footage to help with T.V. ads for media…the list gets longer.”


This is when Treehouse started to branch out into other divisions, Trinen said.


“From there, the team started to grow, and one of the first things I said was, ‘We really need somebody else to capture the footage [for media], because there’s actual localization work to do, and we can’t do it all,’ so then we added what’s now called our Marketing Support Team.”


The Marketing Support Team is responsible for capturing all of the footage used in promotional materials, as well as trailers for games, including 2004’s Twilight Princess trailer, which was met with a standing ovation from its audience.


“Then there’s my team,” Trinen said. “I left out of localization several years ago and started up what is essentially the product marketing team. Our role is to educate the NOA internal marketing teams and their agencies on what the products are and how they can identify the key features of a product.”


“We also have our brand management/Pokémon team that handles all of the Pokémon products. They do some things around the Kirby franchise. Today, Treehouse is a very large group. Localization alone is 40 or 50 people. It’s hard to imagine that we started by translating text into .txt files.”


If you don’t know Trinen as the Director of Product Marketing, you probably know him as Shigeru Miyamoto’s translator, so I asked him about that next. I said: “You’ve been working with Mr. Miyamoto for quite some time. Can you tell us what your guys’ interpreter-interpretee relationship is like?”


With a laugh, Trinen replied, “There have actually been rumors that Mr. Miyamoto is going to retire, you know, so this E3 we were going to spread the rumor that the two of us had bought a place in a Hawaii and that we’re going to retire together.”


“But really, when I first joined Nintendo it was in 1998. I had gone in for an interview on a contract job and didn’t hear back, so, I just sort of assumed I didn’t get the job. Then I heard back from this agency that had hooked me up with the interview and they said, ‘well yeah, they don’t want to hire you for the contract job, they just want to HIRE you!’ So, naturally, I said, hey, sure—I’ll do that!”


While they were going through the paperwork to formally hire Trinen, Nintendo put him in a contract position which happened to be translating book reports for The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.


“As a part of the testing process for Ocarina of Time, we were doing these nightly telephone conference calls, because we didn’t have video conference technology back then—but we at least had email—so we would do these calls every night and I ended up being the one who was translating them for the testing team in Redmond.”


During these conference calls, Trinen would relay information provided by the testing team to designers Miyamoto, Aounuma, and Koizumi. When the project was finished, he was hired into localization full-time.


“I was going about my merry way for a few months when, one day, Jim Merrick comes up to me and says, ‘you’re Bill, right? You speak Japanese, don’t you?’ I was young and naïve, so of course I said, ‘Yeah! Yeah I speak Japanese!’”


Merrick asked Trinen if he would like to translate for Miyamoto when he gave a speech at the Game Developer’s Conference. “I asked him how big of a speech it was. ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘anywhere between 3-5 thousand people.’”


Trinen then flew out to see Miyamoto in San Francisco. “He was really nervous because he had never spoken in front of an audience that large before—and I was really nervous because I had never met Mr. Miyamoto. I can’t remember it exactly, but there was this little joke at the beginning…anyways, we got on stage, and he gets to his joke, tells it, I translate it, and the whole room just busts up.”


Trinen shared that at that point, the nervousness had completely melted away from the both of them, and that this was the start of their partnership as interpreter and interpretee. “That’s been our motto ever since—whenever were doing anything, we don’t really care what the audience thinks, the two of us are just going to get up and have fun.”


“Before the trip, I told my wife, ‘I’m going to come back either looking for a new job or I’ll be staying at Nintendo for a very long time.”


You know the rest of the story.

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  • JB2448

    There’s such an excellent dynamic between Miyamoto and Trinen, so this origin story doesn’t surprise me one bit. Hopefully Nintendo shines a spotlight on its Treehouse employees in the future, since they come off as more genuine than most other members of the game industry.

  • Shippoyasha

    Pretty fun outing but a few of the panels were total time wasters. There’s some good moments in the stream and then a total ‘what, that’s it?’ moments. I hope they straighten that out next time. And I won’t mind if MS and Sony get in on the action. It’s basically a more streamlined media coverage that’s expedited by the Big 3.

    • Satori Satya

      The format of having devs showing actual gameplay and explaining the game to you (as in you the public, not just the press), is definitely better than just showing some of the pre-rendered CGI stuff that Sony or MS had at their conferences.

      • FivePointedTheStar

        Can this message be sent to those two next year so that their E3 presentation is about the games and the people who play the games instead of a thinly veiled, extremely long, and boring advertisement for products most gamers have no interest in?

        • Satori Satya

          The problem is that many of the games at Sony’s and MS’s conferences weren’t even in playable form. Like the Grim Fandango remake, for instance.

          I think that it would be hard for them to adopt a similar format as Nintendo. Since they would be limited to showing only games in an advance state of development. Not the ones that they still want to keep hidden behind a flashy CGI video. To avoid said games from being ripped apart because they lack polish.

          So I don’t think they adopt the same format of doing digital events as Nintendo. They’ll keep doing the same old routine. Maybe they could spice it up by inviting some Hollywood celebs to the show. Or start selling booze.

          • Brii-Nanas

            I think the way Nintendo (and most Japanese devs) develops video games is ironing out gameplay/a playable prototype first before building up the graphics, aesthetics, and plot. Giant Robot and that defense game were clearly in the working prototype stage, and Splatoon was no where fully featured, but still very functional as a demo.

            It seems to just be a difference in how the games are made which allows Nintendo to confidently show off their product in an unfinished state, while Sony and Microsoft can only show off teasers and choreographed demos. Not trying to say the latter is wrong, since the end product could still be great, but the former inspires a lot more confidence since you aren’t just being assured by the marketing that the game is good; you can test it for yourself. At the same time, some people have trouble grasping that they are still very much works in progress and not fully featured. I’ve seen a lot of people complain about Splatoon not being substantial, even though the demo is clearly just a vertical slice and still has close to a year of time for more polish and features.

  • KingGunblader

    I enjoyed seeing more of Super Smash Bros and Xenoblade Chronicles X during the Treehouse panels. It’s a good format, and I’d like to see it continue.

    However, that dude who was on the mic giving commentary while they were playing Smash may be one of the most punchable faces I’ve ever seen on the Internet, and I hope they don’t bring him back.

    • Nanashrew

      Nate Bihldorff? He’s awesome though.

      • KingGunblader

        No, not him. The other guy (lol as if that helps). The one who wasn’t actually playing, just spouting off. :P

        • Blazkn

          IIRC, Erik Peterson? He’s also awesome though haha

          • KingGunblader

            I think that’s the one.

            He gave off this vibe of “I don’t actually know / care about what’s happening.” Seemed like they just needed a pretty face to draw eyeballs to the stream. Sort of like when anybody asks Joel McHale to host anything.

          • Satori Satya

            Joel McHale is awesome, though.

          • KingGunblader

            He sure is… but he’s not a great host. (see: VGX, the epitome of awkwardness)

          • Satori Satya

            There is nothing much that can save the VGX from being a big joke., though.

            So nothing much was lost there. ;)

          • Peter Garcia

            You’re talking about the dude with the actual microphone and muscles huh?

  • Guest

    Kinda unrelated, but every time I see Nate Bihldorff name in the credits, I automatically read it as Bidoof…

    • Guest

      Edit: Fused two different phrases, MY BAD!

    • RagingTiger44

      Used to do that myself.

  • Eder García

    Trinen… you rock!

  • 3PointDecoupage

    They do a good job. Games that wouldnt have sold anything a decade ago are.doing really well.

  • Seth Rich

    I heard Bill speak Japanese for the first time when I watched the E3 stream. All I can say is that he sounded like a samurai about to cut someone’s head off. It was very intense, but good. I just didn’t expect that out of him.

  • PreyMantis

    Didn’t any of you know? Trinen was actually a robot all along, as seen from this video:

    • Serge

      I may be wrong, but wasn’t Trinen the man that made fun of Reggie’s Japanese? And the guy playing with amibos? If the answer is yes, then this man is cool.

      • Codename: D.A.V.I.D.

        Yes, he felt the wrath of Reggie afterwards. It was one of the most intriguing Nintendo Direct subplots :P

        • Tylor Boreas Makimoto

          I was with it till the end. “rip in peace” is as redundant as “ATM machine” and “PIN number”.


  • XypherCode

    I’ve always wanted to read an interview with Bill. Btw here’s a good article by Kotaku focusing on Nate Bihldorff and the Treehouse in general.

    • RagingTiger44

      This article was my first exposure to the Treehouse. Read it some time ago. These guys are awesome.

  • Tails the Foxhound

    I always see little stories like this from Nintendo staff and they’re always so uplifting. Why don’t Sony and Microsoft, or hell even other 3rd party developers get their stories out here like this? Nintendo employees can’t be the only ones who have magical, happy-accident filled lives.

    • Shippoyasha

      Kind of a sacrilege to say anymore, but Major Nelson of Xbox had some good stories as well. It’s a shame that MS has a lot of corporate minded individuals running it all. And there’s some really passionate game-oriented talent in Xbox division too. Sony has its share of war stories as does Sega. But a lot of drama about them gets played out more in the media.

      • s07195

        In a way, it’s kinda like the supposed difference between games on Nintendo consoles vs Sony/Microsoft consoles.

        • triablos

          I don’t know, all 3 make fun games and that’s really all that matters

          • s07195

            Yep. Hence ‘supposed’. In all honesty, I have fun on all 3 of their consoles. Which is what matters.

    • kylehyde

      The best example of this is the same Iwata. From a member of a third party company that as about to close to president of nintendo.

      P.S. please don’t bring the Cing incident on the table, it sucks how in ended, but it appears that the were some bad blood between them, or at least some rumours say that, we don’t know for sure what went wrong, specially since nintendo has been rescuing projects lately.

  • Codename: D.A.V.I.D.

    Also for those interested, there will be another Treehouse Live-esque stream directly from San Diego Comic Con next week, alongside the Super Smash Bros. for 3DS tournament:

    • Kaetsu

      Apparently they’re also teasing something special.

  • I’m glad it’s working well. You actually get to see more of the games.

  • kylehyde

    After watching the streaming on the last E3 is beginning to cross on my mind the idea that Bill Trinen should be the next NOA president.

    • axemtitanium


    • Mastery

      I think he’d be a good spokesperson, maybe. Not sure if he has the other skills that come with the job. You know, Reggie actually worked in business before we all knew him as an asskicker.

  • Ric Vazquez

    Really nice story

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